By Jeremy Herb and Justin Sink - 05/07/13 08:15 PM EDT
President Obama on Tuesday said he had “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and urged the Pentagon to take action after a new report revealed a sharp rise in incidents.
"Sexual assault is an outrage. It is a crime, and that’s true for society at large,” said Obama, speaking at a joint press conference with the visiting President of South Korea Park Geun-Hye. “And if it happens inside our military, whoever is carrying it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing.”
"I've directly spoken to Secretary Hagel already today and indicated to him that we not only have to step up our game but exponentially go after it," Obama said.
The president added that he wanted to assure members of the military who had been victims of sexual abuse that he's "got their back."
"Bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this. I have communicated this to the Secretary of Defense. We're going to communicate this again to folks up and down the chain," he added.
Obama also said that while this was "not a new phenomenon," he would not be satisfied with a response that did not seriously address the issue.
"I expect consequences. I don't want just more speeches, awareness programs or training where people ultimately look the other way," the president said.
Obama said those found to be responsible should be court-martialed, fired and dishonorably discharged.
"This is not who we are. This is not what the U.S. military is about, and it dishonors the vast majority of the men and women in the U.S. military," Obama added.
The Pentagon report released Tuesday found that the number of reported sexual assaults rose to 3,374 last year, up from 3,192 in 2011. That’s the highest number of reported cases since the Pentagon began submitting annual reports to Congress on sexual assault in 2004.
Including unreported cases, the Pentagon estimates 26,000 sexual assaults took place across the armed forces in 2012.
The Pentagon’s estimate of 26,000 reported and unreported sexual assaults is an increase from 2010, when the department estimated 19,000 total cases. The department did not produce a total estimate of sexual assaults for 2011.
The Pentagon estimates the total number of sexual assaults based on an anonymous survey of service members. The data indicate that most victims do not report the crime to their superiors.
The 2010 survey, for instance, estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults went unreported, which the military says is similar to the rate for civilian sexual assault crimes.
Hagel announced several new initiatives on Tuesday in response to the report, which he said were designed to hold military leaders at all levels accountable for responding to sexual assault and improving command climates.
Hagel said that victims "have to feel confident that if they come forward, that in fact, they can rely on our system of justice, and in fact action will be taken and responsibility at all levels of command will be implemented."
The Pentagon has come under fire in recent months for the way it handles sexual assault in the ranks.
Lawmakers say the military is not taking the issue of sexual assault seriously enough, and a number of them are seeking to overhaul how the military investigates and prosecutes the cases through legislation.
The action on Capitol Hill is being fueled by outrage over more than two-dozen basic training instructors accused of sexual misconduct at Lackland Air Base last year, as well as an Air Force sexual assault case this year where a guilty verdict was dismissed by a commander in a post-trial review.
The criticism escalated this week when it was revealed that an Air Force chief for sexual assault prevention was charged on Sunday with sexual battery.
“While under our legal system everyone is innocent until proven guilty, this arrest speaks volumes about the status and effectiveness of DOD’s efforts to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at an Air Force hearing on Tuesday.
After learning of the charges against Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, the military dismissed him from his post Monday.
"We’re all outraged and disgusted over these very troubling allegations," Hagel said at Tuesday's press conference.
Lawmakers said Tuesday’s report shows that the military is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to sexual assault.
“We have learned of an increase in the amount of service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact and a decrease in the rate that those incidents are reported,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “[That is] the exact opposite direction of what would indicate a cultural and statistical shift on a problem that effects mission readiness and overall morale of our forces.”
Hagel also recommended last month that the military’s judicial code be changed to strip commanders of the ability to overturn guilty verdicts in a post-trial review.
But some lawmakers want the military to go further, removing the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command, which the services have argued against.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) pressed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on the issue at Tuesday’s congressional hearing.
Welsh defended the way that commanders handle sexual assault cases, saying that overturned verdicts are rare.
When Welsh said that the reporting problem with sexual assault cases is similar in the civilian and military worlds, Gillibrand cut him off.
“I think it’s very different in the military,” she said. “I think you’re precisely wrong about that. Everything is about the chain of command.”
— This report was originally published at 10:56 a.m. and has been updated.